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St. Petersburg roundtable focuses once again on affordable housing

It was the second part of an ongoing discussion with community leaders about how to address the problem.

ST. PETERSBURG — Affordable housing was front and center of a second city roundtable held on the issue Thursday night.

Officials who address the issue from different angles discussed the topic in front of an audience of about 30 people at the Sunshine Senior Center. They gave updates on the work that has been done and the challenges they still face.

Community leaders have called the status of housing affordability a crisis, with 40 percent of city residents spending more than 30 percent of their income — a magic number for experts who study income and living costs — on their housing.

The discussion spanned from familiar lines about the state again spending Sadowski affordable housing funds on other, non-housing needs, and on technical issues about private mortgage insurance.

One theme throughout the 2-hour event was the need to educate the public about exactly what affordable housing means. Housing advocate Imam “Askia” Muhammad Aquil said affordable housing is too often misconstrued as the big public housing projects of years past, instead of just homes and apartments that working families can afford.

Panelists said that comes with a misconception about who qualifies for affordable housing. It’s not just the poor, they said, it can also include teachers and police officers.

Pinellas County Commission chair Karen Seel said recent affordable housing developments look “gorgeous.”

Watson Haynes, the president of the Pinellas County Urban League, said homeowners should be wary of reverse mortgages and predatory home buyers. He said lenders target the elderly with reverse mortgages as they don’t require monthly mortgage payments.

But when the homeowner dies, the home is reclaimed by the lender, depriving heirs of the family’s accumulated wealth. He also said people can be enticed by professional home buyers who knock on doors and offer $60,000 in cash on the spot for a house.

That offer can be enticing to a homeowner. Except “then they spend the next four or five years spending that money to rent someplace,” Haynes said, and can end up homeless.

The discussion also included updates on several ongoing efforts. Gerdes recapped the city’s latest affordable housing plan, which dedicates $60 million over 10 years to construct and preserve 2,400 units of affordable homes.

The evening crowd was far smaller than the one that attended a morning forum in July. At that meeting, audience members blasted the panelists for holding the forum at an inopportune time for working people.

About a half dozen audience members spoke Thursday, including one man from an organization representing prefabricated home manufacturers and several people in real estate.

One speaker, real estate agent Jason Spitzer, lamented the lack of discussion sea-level rise, which will affect minority and low-income communities most. He also accused the city’s code enforcement of driving up the cost of housing.

That led to an animated exchange with Gerdes, who oversees code enforcement. He said the city does not foreclose on occupied or homesteaded homes.